The Crowd You’re In With at AstonRep takes place on an evocative set designed by Jeremiah Barr, the deck and backyard of a rundown suburban house that is set out for a 4th of July barbecue. Small accents, like deck chairs, fairy lights, and a tacky tablecloth, create a very lived-in feel. The lighting from Samantha Barr is atmospheric and welcoming; the yellow light from inside spills out through a screen door, and the fading blue ambience captures the feeling of a warm summer evening quite well.
We open at the barbecue of married couple Jasper (Martin Diaz-Valdes) and Melinda (Sara Pavlak McGuire) — consisting of another mid-thirties couple, the pregnant Windsong (Maggie Antonijevic) and the slightly obnoxious Dan (Nick Freed), the older married couple and landlords who live upstairs, Tom and Karen (Javier Carmona and Lynne Baker), and their single musician friend Darcy (Erin O’Brien). As it is slowly revealed that Jasper and Melinda are trying to get pregnant, the conversation turns to the subject of why some people choose to have kids, and why some don’t.
And that’s kind of. . . it? This is a show that very much delights in the ordinary; it is about ordinary people, in an ordinary setting, talking about an ordinary thing. The thing about conceiving and raising a child is that it is probably the most mind-boggling, taxing, and gargantuan thing a human can choose to do, while still being incredibly ordinary. The script’s intricacies mostly stem from that overwhelming feeling, and what each married pair chooses to do with that feeling. I’ll be frank here and say that this emotional struggle is still a bit alien to me (a 24-year-old, hopelessly single millennial is perhaps not this show’s target demographic), but that isn’t to say there was no impact. The mundanity of the subject matter could have been a drawback, but it is presented with enough flair that the effect is fairly entrancing.
One gets the sense that playwright Rebecca Gilman wrote this play as a way of making sense of some real-life difficult conversations. The dialogue reads extremely naturalistic, and so feels very personal. Furthermore, each couple is set up as a distinct representation of each side of the argument. Dan and Windsong, for instance, are already pregnant — they are relatively young but seem to have lost the rebellious streak of their twenties, and they are 100% pro-kids, to the point of condescension. By contrast, Tom and Karen are perhaps twenty years older, and are childless by choice — and they are so anti-child that they don’t even want children in the house they’re renting out. And listening to both of these arguments, stuck in the middle with a devil and angel on each shoulder, are Jasper and Melinda. These two, though trying to get pregnant, are not quite on the same page as each other, and it is this disparity that gives the play its backbone.
And then there’s Darcy, who is mostly just. . . there. This character is gender-bent from the original script, originally called Dwight, and was changed with permission from the author. And that’s cool, given that it brings in a unique female perspective. Darcy is now the only female character for whom the question of children doesn’t come up, and her slacker personality upends what were some gendered stereotypes. However, while Erin O’Brien is incredibly funny and fun to watch, I really don’t understand what this character does or why she is there. She is onstage for all of fifteen minutes, and the fact that the gender swap has zero effect on the show seems a tacit admission that the character isn’t strictly necessary.
The actors do quite well with the material, although some have better command over the naturalistic style than others. And director Derek Bertelsen always keeps the blocking dynamic and interesting; the stage pictures are compelling throughout. Most importantly, together the ensemble creates a palpable forward momentum that pushes the play forcefully towards its emotional conclusion.
But for all its strengths, I was never all that affected. Some of this is in the script: the compelling naturalistic dialogue is often interrupted by long, opinionated monologues that feel like lectures. The play is structured almost like an academic forum on the merits and drawbacks of having kids — and as a result, it can often feel like we are watching a moderated high school debate rather than an uncomfortable backyard barbecue. I half expected a judge to enter and start handing out points (and having just watched such a thing happen on Brooklyn 99 didn’t help).
Thankfully, each actor gives their character a clearly defined personality and driving ambition, so it still feels like we are watching real people. And the long monologues aren’t all bad; some of them get us to some really fascinating, probing places.
I did not find The Crowd You’re In With to be particularly affecting, but it was very effective, if that makes sense. My emotions walked out of the theater untouched, but it had shone a light onto some issues I’d only thought about in passing. The show captures the feeling of scrutiny that comes from intimacy, of the terror of being known, quite well. Having kids is, to use the academic term, a really big deal. Choosing whether or not to do it is a process that will shine a harsh and illuminating light onto the very inner recesses of your character. If you happen to be making this decision with a close partner, they get to be the one shining the flashlight — and this play shows us those terrifying moments when they don’t like what they see.
The Crowd You’re In With is produced by AstonRep and runs at the Raven Theatre West Stage through June 16th.
Windsong: Maggie Antonijevic
Karen: Lynne Baker
Tom: Javier Carmona
Jasper: Martin Diaz-Valdes
Dan: Nick Freed
Melinda: Sara Pavlak McGuire
Darcy: Erin O’Brien
u/s Dan: David Coupe
u/s Karen: Lara Caprini
Director/Co-Artistic Director: Derek Bertelsen
Stage Manager: Melanie Kulas
Assistant Director: Aja Wiltshire
Scenic and Props Designer/Technical Director: Jeremiah Barr
Lighting Design/Production Manager: Samantha Barr
Costume Designer: Uriel Gomez
Sound Designer: Melanie Thompson
Logo Design: Lea Tobin
Co-Artistic Director/Casting Director: Sara Pavlak McGuire
Box Office Manager: Amy Kasper
Publicist: David Rosenberg
Photographer: Paul Goyette